Russia's Submarine Force Is Back: How Worried Should America Be?

Russia's Submarine Force Is Back: How Worried Should America Be?

Improved, but not the mighty Soviet Navy. 


While Pentagon and U.S. Navy officials have been sounding the alarm about a resurgent Russian Navy, the Defense Department’s concerns might be somewhat overblown. Though analysts vary in their opinions, the current Russian submarine fleet is less than one-fifth of the size of the once mighty Soviet armada and perhaps as little as half of Moscow’s undersea force is operational at any one time. Nonetheless, the Russian fleet has recovered from its worst post-Cold War lows when its submarine activity came to a virtual standstill.

“At a time when resources were scarce across the board, the Navy also got short-shifted,” Michael Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses told The National Interest. “This situation really lasted well into the early to mid-2000s.”


The Russian submarine fleet hit its post-Soviet low when the Project 949A Antey-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine K-141 Kursk sank after a torpedo explosion on August 12, 2000. It was only with the sinking of the Kursk that the Russian public realized how dire the Russian Navy’s situation had become—ships and submarines were poorly maintained and crews received scant training. “Russia subsequently largely suspended submarine operations after the Kursk sank,” Kofman said. “You would not find much Russian naval activity for quite a few years.”

The root cause of the Kursk disaster can be directly traced to the dismal state of the Russian Navy in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Essentially, the Russian Navy rusted away in port for years due to the lack of funds. Its crews lacked proper training and didn’t have the opportunity to gain necessary experience to regain their skills. To make matters worse—Russian crews were not paid living wages. “The Kursk’s captain was probably barely making a couple hundred dollars a month [when she sank],” Kofman said. “That was the tragedy the Russian Navy was in at the time.”

In subsequent years, the Kremlin made reforms to improve the Russian Navy—not only in terms of its material condition—but also its personnel. The Russian Navy has made huge strides in training its crews. Indeed, the Russian Navy no longer uses conscripts, the service has moved to a mostly contract force, Kofman noted. “That’s often overlooked,” Kofman said—noting that most discussions tend to focus on hardware.

But while the Russian Navy—particularly its submarine force—has recovered from its post-Cold War lows, it does not have anywhere near the capacity or capability that the Soviet Navy once did. While the Soviet Navy had roughly 250 submarines—the modern Russian fleet has about a fifth of that total, and less than half of those boats are operational at any given time. “One of the most puzzling things you’ll ever hear is when people say the Russian submarines are operating at Cold War levels,” Kofman said. “That's frankly impossible.  How can one-fifth the submarine force of the Soviet Union, with barely 50 percent operational readiness - and I think that's very generous - could be operating at a level of activity of what was the largest submarine force in the world?"

But nonetheless, Russia has made some notable improvements to its fleet with the addition of the Project 955 Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines that are replacing the earlier Delta III-class boomers. Kofman said that he does expect that Russia will build all eight of the new boomers. Because those vessels are part of Moscow’s strategic nuclear deterrent, funding for those submarines are afforded high priority.

Less certain is the fate of the Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines. While the Yasen-class is a very capable boat, the new submarines are extremely expensive—roughly twice the cost of a Borey. Moreover, Russia has had trouble bringing the boat into service given various defects that have been discovered during sea-trials. Indeed, the first Yasen-class boat has languished in sea-trials for years and is only entering operational service this year. “It's had a troubled development history and lengthy sea trials suggest there were plenty of faults left to work out,” Kofman said.

While Russia has finally—more or less—resolved problems with the first Yasen-class boat— Severodvinsk—each subsequent boat is essentially being custom-built. Indeed, Kofman said that Russia will likely have to design and build a smaller, less complex, more easily producible attack boat if it realistically wants to recapitalize its nuclear attack submarine fleet.  Kofman said there is little chance that Russia will build all planned Yasen-class boats—and the ones that are built will be unique one-off designs. “They’re basically going to be artisanally-made,” Kofman said. “Who knows what the next boat Kazan will feature, and the one after that follows it? It’s going to take so long to build them, in reality, they’re not going to be serially produced.”

Meanwhile, Russia continues to build the diesel-electric Project 636 Varshavyanka-class—also known as the Improved Kilo—after the failure of the Project 677 Lada-class design. But while the Kilo has been much improved over its many years in service, Kofman pointed out that the underlying design is old and Russia needs a new boat design. The next Russian diesel-electric boat is the Kalina—which is set to start construction next year. The new submarine is expected to have an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, but Kofman noted that Russia has had a great deal of trouble perfecting such a system. As such, he expects that Moscow may abandon its unsuccessful pursuit of AIP and could focus instead on extended-capacity battery packs.

While the Russian Navy is continuing to build improved diesel-electric Kilo-class attack submarines it is also adding multi-mission capability to its modernized Project 971 Shchuka-B and Project 949A Antey-class nuclear attack submarines. The submarines are receiving the ability to launch the P-800 Oniks, Kalibr land-attack, and anti-ship cruise missiles. The addition of the Kalibr gives even the diminutive Project 636 Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric boats a significant punch, Kofman said. However, Kofman pointed out, “Having long range missiles is great assuming you can track and see.  We always fall in love with missiles but there's been little exploration of how good the kill-chain is that enables their combat effectiveness.”

Ultimately, while the Russian fleet is a recovering force that is once again showing clear signs of life, it is a mere shadow of its Cold War-era Soviet predecessor. The problem for the United States and NATO is less the revival of the Russian fleet and more the lack of Western anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capacity.  “It is our own cuts in ASW that make this more of an issue than it otherwise would be,” Kofman said.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons 3.0.